Andrew Outcalt: A workforce that can wear many hats helps smooth out the ups and downs of business cycles

All businesses today have to weather the good times and bad times. How you approach managing up and down cycles has a direct impact on employee morale, productivity, retention and your bottom line.

Employees are the heart of any vibrant, continuously improving organization. When sales and profits are down, they worry about job security and competition. That’s when management should be at its creative best, using a high level of communication and motivational tools to shore up morale and keep productivity elevated.

There are a number of proactive steps you can take to unify your team, boost employee morale and instill pride and loyalty in your company, which will pay dividends in both good and bad business cycles. Key elements include creative thinking and good communication throughout your organization.

■  Instill accountability. In a culture of accountability, employees take initiative. Many people think of accountability only when something goes wrong, but it has far broader implications. People who have a high level of personal accountability take initiative to ensure the success of a project, issue or action. They will provide early warning of potential problems and take action to resolve an issue.

Management needs to keep an eye out for employees who are accountable and reward them accordingly.

■  Cross-training the workforce. Training is a win-win because it’s proof that your company will invest time and resources to teach employees new skills while providing the company a more flexible workforce. You can cross-train both factory and office personnel.

For example, paint line workers can be cross-trained to support shipping and receiving or assembly cells. In an office environment, customer service people can be trained to monitor and reply to social media channels, as well as learn to do outbound telemarketing when in-bound calls slowdown.

■  Use frequent top-down communication. Frequent communication from the top is essential for an innovative, flexible workforce, and it is especially important when a business cycle is down.

To the extent that company ownership will allow, share financial or sales performance results on a quarterly basis and let your workforce know what new initiatives are being undertaken to increase sales, improve customer service and streamline operations.

■  Use frequent two-way communication. Hold regular meetings by department and be part of give-and-take sessions to learn what your employees are thinking and the ideas that they have to make improvements. Commit to better and more frequent one-on-one dialogue with staff members.

Provide ample opportunity for feedback and innovative ideas for improvement. Conduct job satisfaction surveys at least twice a year to help measure the results of your employee relations programs.

■  Reward initiative. It’s important to reward those who step up and take on more responsibility. Depending on the culture of your company, rewards can take many forms, from employee-of-the-month programs and monetary rewards for good ideas, to preferred parking spots and paid community service days when employees can volunteer for charitable causes and be paid by your company for a workday.

Your business is only as strong as your employees. Ultimately, if you build a culture of accountability, do a good job of communicating, give employees the opportunity to take initiative, reward them for their efforts and instill the company’s core values throughout your organization, everyone will reap the rewards no matter what the economic climate.

Andrew L. Outcalt is president of The Louis Berkman Work Products Co., which includes Meyer Products and Swenson Products. Both companies are vertically integrated manufacturers of snow and ice control equipment sold around the world. For more information, visit www.meyerproducts.com or www.swensonproducts.com.

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